Today, we’re going to talk about the best lunch box gear for kids. All the things that make packing a nourishing, real food lunch possible.
When I asked reader friends over on Instagram about when kids go back to school, I was surprised by the even split between August and September. No matter when your child starts school, I hope today’s chat will help you navigate which tools work best for packing real food lunches.
Packing a nourishing lunch is similar to cooking real food. If you have a good skillet, spatula, and stove-top, the act of making a home-cooked dinner is possible, but if you take away those tools, you probably won’t have what you need to prepare food. In the same way, when you have tools to make packing a nourishing lunch possible, you’re more likely to actually pack a daily lunch and find enjoyment in doing so.
A bento-style lunchbox makes packing lunch an easy and enjoyable experience.
It’s hard to pack variety in the lunchbox when you depend on baggies. With a bento-style lunchbox, you can easily pack a variety of food and smaller, grazing-style portions.
Bento-style boxes are also easier for kids to use because they don’t have to fuss with multiple baggies in a lunch bag. When it’s lunchtime, a child simply needs to unzip their lunch bag, open the bento box and all the food is accessible and ready to enjoy.
There are many bento-style lunchbox options on the market, and I’ve tried many of them. I’ve narrowed the options down to what I consider to be the best of the best.
Best Bento Box Award: Planetbox
This is the stainless steel, bento-style box my kids use for the majority of their lunches.
A Planetbox is a major investment, but worth every penny since a box is made to last for years. (My kids have been using the Planetbox Rover for 5 years now.) I’ve found Planetbox to be the best, longest-lasting, and easiest-to-use bento box on the market. The Planetbox doesn’t keep food warm/hot, so if you want to pack warm food you’ll need to purchase a thermos or a separate lunchbox that’s designed to do so.
There are several Planetbox options to choose from, based on what size you need…
- The Shuttle is the smallest Planetbox option. I purchased the Shuttle many years ago, and I found it be too small. I don’t recommend spending any money on this option because it’s simply too small to grow with a child. This lunchbox holds 3.5 cups of food and features 2 compartments.
- For preschool and elementary school kids, the Planetbox Rover is the way to go. This is the box my kids have used since preschool. The PlanetBox Rover features 5 compartments, is large enough to hold 4.5 cups of food, and comes with leak-proof “dipper” containers that fit inside the box. The compartments are not leak-proof, so if I want to pack something like yogurt or applesauce, the dipper containers are ideal.
- For older kids or adults, the Planetbox Launch is the perfect size. This box holds 7 cups of food and features 3 large food compartments.
All three options come with a set of magnets, which I let my kids change out at the start of the school year so they feel like they have a fresh, new lunchbox each year.
Most lunch bags don’t fit the Planetbox due to the unusual size and shape of the boxes (unusual compared to most lunchboxes on the market). This means you need to use the Planetbox bag. You can purchase a “kit” from Planetbox, which includes magnets, the lunchbox, and lunch bag. This is definitely the best way to go.
Best Bento Box Award: Omielife With Built-In Thermos
This is a bento-style box with a built-in thermos. This lunchbox features 4 compartments, including the removable thermos compartment.
I use this box when I want to pack hot lunch components: beans and rice, soup, leftovers, pasta and sauce, etc. The thermos also works well for keeping food cold (i.e. yogurt and frozen fruit). This box doesn’t appear to hold a ton of food, but I’ve found looks to be deceiving.
The box holds enough food to satisfy both my 7 and 9 year-old. That said, the box does look very childish, so older kids may not love the kiddie look. This box is also plastic (BPA-free). And the lid on the thermos can be difficult to remove, so a young child will need some assistance with opening and even closing the thermos lid.
That said, this is the best option I’ve found for an all-in-one thermos/bento-style lunchbox. If you have older children, I suggest purchasing a stand-alone thermos that you can pair with the Planetbox or some reusable baggies when you want to pack a hot lunch.
This box can be used without a lunch bag, because it has a handle that allows a child to easily carry the box itself. However, we all know that kids can be rough on lunch gear. Because of this, I’m paranoid about sending this box as-is. I always pack the Omielife inside a lunch bag. Unlike the Planetbox, most lunch bags work with the Omielife.
Ready to pack a bento box lunch? Check out over 27 easy bento box lunch ideas for kids and school!
Best Accessories for the Lunchbox
Best Thermos for Hot Lunch
If you want to pack hot food in the lunchbox, the best way to do this is to add the warm food to a thermos. Learn how to keep food warm in the lunchbox and over 23 hot lunch ideas.
Best Thermos For School Lunch
Best Reusable Water Bottles
A reusable water bottle keeps you from purchasing disposable water bottles or juice boxes. My kids take a water bottle daily to school alongside their lunchbox. The bottles are usually filled with water. If your kids are used to a juice box, you could send diluted juice in a water bottle, and slowly increase the amount of water while decreasing the amount of juice.
I’ve tried a number of different water bottle brands over the years. Here are my top recommendations for kids…
- HydroFlask: The stainless steel water bottle my kids currently use. The 16-ounce water bottle is my preferred size for kids. The standard lid can be hard for young kids to open, so I recommend purchasing a lid with a straw.
- Life Factory: A glass water bottle with a silicone sleeve. My kids attend a Montessori school, where the use of glass is encouraged. I realize this is the exception versus the norm. If you don’t mind sending your kids with a glass container, and your school is okay with this choice, Life Factory bottles are a fantastic option.
- S’well: A stainless steel option that’s more affordable than the HydroFlask and comes in a variety of cute designs. The lid on the S’well bottle is much easier to open than the traditional HydroFlask lid, and it’s attached to the bottle so you don’t have to worry about it getting lost.
Best Ice Packs
When packing food in the Planetbox, I recommend adding a flat ice pack to the lunch bag. The Planetbox lunch bag has a built-in sleeve that makes it easy to add an ice pack.
When using the Omielife, or a stand-alone thermos, I recommend skipping the ice pack since it may interfere with keeping the food in the thermos warm/hot. In this case, think about packing side items that may be served at room temperature versus food that needs to be chilled.
42 EASY SCHOOL LUNCH IDEAS CHEAT SHEET
Nourishing meal ideas for effortless school lunches. Download your free lunch guide.
Tip: Practice with New Lunch Gear
Before sending your child off to school with new gear (a lunchbox, container, water bottle, reusable silverware, etc.), practice with the item at home. Don’t expect your child to know how to use something or understand that an item needs to be returned home (such as a container) on their own. Practice how to open the lunchbox, how to put a container back in the lunchbox, and how to open the water bottle. A chill weekend is the perfect time to pack a “mock lunch” and practice with new gear.
Older kids probably don’t need this extra practice. Instead, talk to your child about the new gear, modeling how to use it, so they understand what needs to be returned home (such as containers and reusable baggies) or how to open a new water bottle lid.
Tip: How to Keep Your Lunch Gear Organized
One of the stressors that can come with packing lunch is trying to find the gear you need when you need it. Maybe you want to pack a Ranch dip, and you need to get out door ASAP, but you can’t find a container for the Ranch. Or, maybe you can’t find your child’s water bottle. This all leads to frustration and stress.
To reduce the likelihood of this happening, and the stress that follows, I recommend keeping all your lunchbox gear in one spot. For me, this is in a cabinet above our fridge. This includes: lunch bags, lunchboxes, and water bottles.
And I keep all my lunchbox accessories in a clear bin, in the same cabinet. This bin includes: Post-It notes with written messages, lunchbox containers (the PlanetBox dipper containers), reusable bags, napkins, silverware, bamboo skewers, and silicone muffin cups.
Keeping everything in one spot makes it easy to grab what you need, pack lunch, and put everything back.
42 EASY SCHOOL LUNCH IDEAS CHEAT SHEET
Nourishing meal ideas for effortless school lunches. Download your free lunch guide.
Hi! Can you suggest a thermos that fits in the planet box?
Hey Amanda, There isn’t an option that fits in the Planetbox, but you could fit one in the drink compartment of the bag. The Foogo is a slime model that should fit!
What has been your experience with the size of the Planet Box rover? The biggest complaint I see is how much room it takes up on the table since the lid just flips open. I even read how some kids didn’t like it because it was so much bigger than other lunch boxes. I have a preschooler and kindergartener. I’m wondering if I should start out with something a little more compact and upgrade as they get a little older.
Hey Julienne, Great question. I haven’t had an issue with the size. I don’t think it’s much larger than most kids’ lunchboxes or how much room kids take up to get all their baggies out. A ton of the kids at school have the Rover and they all fit on the table, without any space issues. In fact, I would say it’s more space efficient since there aren’t bags and containers all over. At that age, I would start with the Rover that way you don’t have to buy another box in a couple of years. I purchased the Rovers the kids have when they were preschool age and they’re still using them. Piper is going on year 6 of using the same box.
The video was so helpful… I’ve been considering getting a Planetbox for a while now, but hesitating because of the price. I’d love to NOT have to hand wash lunch items every day for two kids, but also don’t really want to buy multiple lunch containers that are large and expensive… how do you deal with washing at the end of each day?
Hey Courtney, I’m so glad the video was helpful. I was hesitant because of the price too. After 3 years of using the boxes, the price has been well worth it! They’re really easy to wash. I just run them under water every night while during the dishes and let them air dry all night. You can also put them in the dishwasher, just remove the magnets first.
Any suggestions for adult lunch boxes?
Hey Trish, I use the Lunch Bots case regularly. It’s great: https://amzn.to/2wO4q7h
Another option I love and have: https://amzn.to/2SXPqMy (this option you can put in the microwave, too)
I am interested in the shuttle box. I was just wondering whether you noticed any leaking from the shuttle box. I eat a lot of watery fruits and I just wanted to know if the container would leak if I didn’t put the fruit in the dipper container.
PS I take the bus, so the lunchbox will definitely be jostled around!
Hey Serendipity, I haven’t had issues with leaking. I don’t suggest placing applesauce or yogurt, or other liquid type foods directly in the lunchbox, but fruit shouldn’t be an issue.
Thanks for your reply! I’m probably adding blueberries and watermelon and lots and lots of fruits to mine!
Oh yea, that’s just fine. I add those to the Planetbox without issue.
I bought the PackIt freezeable lunch bag this year for my middle schooler. I can’t wait for her to start using it. It’s supposed to keep food cold for up to 10 hours. I think it will be a great addition and not have to worry about ice packs this year. The school usually keeps the class lunch bags in a bin outside of the classroom so when it’s hot in Sacramento it doesn’t help the lunches stay cold, even with ice packs. I’m trusting that the PackIt bag will hold up to the weather.
Hey Stacey, Thank you for sharing! I just recently learned about the PackIt bags. They look amazing!!
I repurposed a small cookie tin I was given for Christmas to take trail mix or crackers along for my son, and I like that it’s air tight. I do also use Lunchskins for snacks for my toddler to eat when we are out, but I find they work best for sandwiches, fruits and veggies. I purchased a Sillisqueeze so I didn’t have to continue to buy the single-use packs of Applesauce for my son, he was eating two at a time and the Sillisqueeze came in a larger size so I could put enough to satisfy him in it.
Great ideas, Bethany! I love the cookie tin idea–I’m going to save a couple of tins during the holidays. I totally forgot about the Sillisqueeze. I tried those out when my kids were preschoolers, and they loved them. Thank you for sharing.